When the Refuge becomes a Trap: A Review of Whispers of the Heart

Shizuku Tsukushima, the teenage heroine of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1995 film Whispers of the Heart, is the typical artist-type youth. Prone to daydreaming, she would rather read the summer away with fairy tales. Her elder sister Shiho nags her to help around the house, and, if she knows what’s good for her, to study for the high school entrance exams.

Then she meets Seiji, her good-looking and enigmatic schoolmate who is aspiring to be a violin craftsman. Seiji brings Shizuku one day to his workshop, a room under the chalet antique shop which Shizuku had earlier stumbled upon, where he shows her the violin he was working on. The encounter inspires Shizuku to have her own project as well.  Soon, the lazy bum blooms into a writing fiend furiously working on her chosen project – the draft of her first novel.

Shizuku works on her novel night after night, determined to finish the draft in three weeks’ time, before Seiji leaves for Italy to become an apprentice of a violin maker.  Wrapped up in work, she eventually neglects her studies, causing her grades to plummet. This prompts another nagging from her elder sister and a hear-to-heart talk with her mother and father. Shizuku refuses to reveal to her parents her project but they agree to let Shizuku finish it, whatever it is. “Not everybody needs to follow the same path,” her librarian father says, voicing a rather deviant sentiment against a backdrop of  a culture known for its groupist mentality. “It’s never easy when you do things different from everyone else. If things don’t go well you only have yourself to blame.”

Singing at the workshop: One of the many set pieces in the film

The path is a recurring leitmotif in the film. Many of the scenes here are the pensive Shizuku walking down the roads of Tama Hills in Tokyo, which was realistically rendered in watercolor (Hayao Miyazaki was known for his adamant refusal of the use of computer graphics in his films. Whispers of the Heart is probably this last purely hand-drawn project, as Studio Ghibli started incorporating computer-aided animation in the 1997 film, the period epic fantasy Princess Mononoke).  Shizuku is introduced to viewers leaving a convenience store and making her way to her family’s condominium. Later, another path scene brings to life what her father is saying about not following the same path as everyone else: Instead of going straight away to the library where his father works to bring him his lunch, Shizuku chases the mysterious cat Muta, squeezing herself through narrow passages between houses, and eventually stumbles upon Mr Nishi’s antique shop, where she first sees The Baron and which turns out to be Seiji’s workshop as well. The chosen theme song, Country Roads, also utilizes the imagery of path.  Shizuku’s inner conflict itself can also be phrased as finding direction in her life.

This is not the first time that Miyazaki is tackling the theme of the imagination as a refuge from harsh reality.  In the 1988 work My Neighbor Totoro, Sasuki and Mei’s flying adventures with a blue-furred giant rodent and its two offsprings keeps them from worrying about their sick, hospital-confined mother. Whispers of the Heart, however, is a more cynical, sometimes chastising take on the theme, depicting what staying too long in the realm of the imagination can do to one’s mundane life.  Her writing project is, of course , Shizuku’s way of knowing whether she has any talent, as well as a coping mechanism against the demands of school life, a Japanese one at that, which is notorious for its punishing workload. As Shizuku surfs the wind with The Baron, her grades also come crashing down. The refuge can sometimes turn into a trap. Shizuku also suffers through bouts of self-doubt, feeling that she cannot stand at par with Seiji, so she can never be worthy of his attention –  an angle on romantic relationships that is seldom touched on in run-of -the mill romance movies.

Hyper-detailed visuals coupled with rich insights on youth and the visceral need to create, Whispers of the Heart is coming-of-age film to remember by.


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